Crisis communications: Say sorry. Mean it. Move on.

27th August, 2014

This week high street clothing company Zara removed a children’s T-shirt from sale... after someone pointed out it looked remarkably like the outfits Jewish victims of the Nazi concentration camps were forced to wear.
While anyone can make a mistake — Zara said it was supposed to be a Wild West-inspired shirt and the yellow star a sheriff’s badge — the company do have previous.
In 2007 they withdrew a flowery handbag after it turned out it had been printed with swastikas as well as exotic flowers.
To suggest they are Nazi sympathisers would be ludicrous (and, perhaps more pertinently, libellous). To suggest they need to actually have a look at what they order before they order it seems too obvious.
What is more interesting to look at is the difference between their own public relations team’s responses (in 2007 and then in 2014) to the two crises.
I can remember very clearly advocating in 2007 (and for a good while before) that a sincere apology — combined with an explanation of the mistake and a reassurance about changes that would minimise the chance of a repeat — could help close off most unpleasant media questions and close down most crises.
In 2007 Zara’s response to media questions about their swastika bag was this:
“Had the symbol been seen we would not have sourced that particular handbag.”
“As a precaution we’ve obviously taken the decision to immediately withdraw the item from sale on being informed of this particular bit of information.”
It made them look daft. It made their processes look poor (you don’t look at what you buy?), it made their comms team look like they’d cut and pasted a stock retailer crisis response (“as a precaution”?), and it sounded petulant (“OBVIOUSLY”) and unrepentant.
This week, in response to criticisms they were trying to outfit kids in Auschwitz prisoner costumes, they got a much better handle on it.
Their spokesperson said:
“The item in question has now been removed from sale. The garment was inspired by the classic Western films, but we now recognise that the design could be seen as insensitive and apologise sincerely for any offence caused to our customers.”
Apologetic, explanatory, to the point. And likely to be the end of the matter. Because if you get that right, the crisis comms dictum works: Say sorry, mean it, move on.

See the BBC story here.